Many people have asked recently for reading recommendations for when you are just too stressed or tired to focus well. I’m not a social scientist, but I suspect the pandemic has something to do with the intense fatigue everyone is feeling, even when it comes to indulging in the joy of reading. Fortunately, Christopher Moore continues to write during these gloomy times. While every novel of his isn’t necessarily a winner, you can absolutely count on Moore to provide a pleasant diversion, even if the end result is just so-so.
With Shakespeare for Squirrels, Moore once again features the fool Pocket of Dog Snogging, first introduced in Fool and revisited in The Serpent of Venice. Pocket is a Moore fan favorite: He’s self-effacing yet cocky; he travels with a monkey named Jeff and a dimwitted sidekick named Drool; he bounces his eyebrows and speaks perfect fucking French. Strong, interesting females are oddly attracted to him, maybe because he makes them laugh, possibly because he’s non-threatening. He tiptoes the delicate line between horndog and gentleman. When a fairy named Cobweb makes overtures, he begs off claiming to be tired. “A fresh young thing like yourself, defenseless before my wisdom and charm, well I would not take advantage, it would be unseemly.” (Cobweb responds that she’s 900 years old and he is a stinking cheese eater. The chemistry between these two is so thick you could cut it with a cheese knife.)
At the start of the novel, Pocket and his entourage, having been set adrift by pirates, wash ashore on the coast of Greece and land squarely in the middle of the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After witnessing the murder of Robin Goodfellow (the Puck), Pocket and friends are taken into custody and charged by Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons and future wife of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to find the murderer in three days. If he fails, his idiot sidekick’s head will roll. Pocket’s 3-day quest brings him into contact with the four Athenian lovers at the center of Midsummer’s plot; the feuding Oberon and Titania; Nick Bottom, the donkey-headed weaver; an annoying narrator named Rumor; and a host of fairies (who, it turns out, are not good at counting, so we’ll never know how old Cobweb really is).
The story is part Shakespearean farce, part whodunit, but the mystery aspect hardly matters. The pleasure sprouts from watching Pocket navigate the strange goings-on in the forest, where the Midsummer plot is unfolding. Moore fans are familiar with his Shakespearean shenanigans: Pocket was born from the fool in King Lear (Fool) and had further adventures in the arenas of Othello and The Merchant of Venice (The Serpent of Venice). While the plot of Shakespeare for Squirrels is less sophisticated than the previous two novels in this series, Moore continues to have fun with The Bard’s work. For example, he inserts a captain of the the watch who has a proclivity for malapropisms, and his narrator is a painful study in exposition that calls back the use of a Chorus a la Henry V or Romeo and Juliet. And occasionally, he sprinkles quotes from Shakespeare without directly calling attention to them–when I caught his reference to the “beast with two backs,” I wondered whether Moore had accidentally forgotten to include that sexual euphemism in his Othello sendup and had been kicking himself ever since.
As irreverent as he is, Moore infuses his prose with moments of true tenderness. When he sees the fairies dancing (to his surprise, “frolicking” does not mean what he thought it did), Pocket muses, “The dance went on, I know not how long, for I was mesmerized with the light and life of it, the grace of it, and even as I felt myself a low and loathsome thing by contrast, there, too, was a joy, a delight in it. These were magical creatures, divine creatures. In all my life I had never seen nor felt anything like it.” As he did with anti-semitism in Serpent of Venice, Moore quietly alludes to some of the politics at play in Shakespeare’s time that might give modern readers pause. That the fairies are slaves resonates with Pocket, as he was once slave to his king. When Theseus speaks of Hippolyta, he laments, “I took her as a spoil of war, but since the battle she has fired a passion me I have never known before. . . . I would possess her, not as a prisoner, but as her lord.” To which Pocket replies, “A distinction without a difference, to be sure.”
But that’s Pocket’s role, and a large part of his charm. He is the noble fool: “After my time as a diplomat, a spy, a pirate, a ghost, and a detector of crimes, I was, again, a fool, poised to take the piss out of power, and from the giddy delight I felt rising in my chest, this surely was my calling, and tonight I had been called.”
Was there ever a time in history when we needed a fool to take the piss out of power more than we do now? I think not. While not Moore’s best novel by any means, Shakespeare for Squirrels is a welcome distraction from the ongoing dreariness of the world. Pocket is the hero and the fool we need right now.